Wanted: Operator to share market with 'lonely' LTE provider

Last week saw the launch of a report by the GSMA that highlighted the degree to which Europe has fallen behind the United States in terms of mobile investments and the rollout of advanced mobile services. The GSMA also chastised European operators about average revenue per user that it says is well below the U.S. average.

It is difficult, and perhaps not entirely fair, to compare the U.S. with Europe, which is a patchwork quilt of countries with different tax and regulatory regimes, and different cultures. That fragmentation is, of course, something the European Union's digital chief, Neelie Kroes, is hoping to address with her vision of a single market for telecoms. The limitations of Europe's varied approach to regulation were also bemoaned by France Telecom, which highlighted how difficult it is to offer quad-play bundles in certain markets.

Nonetheless, Europe's operators have certainly been slow to roll out LTE even within their domestic markets. So this week it has been encouraging to see some competitive momentum with LTE in two key markets: the UK and France.

I recently asked in an editorial if LTE would end Europe's mobile winter, though a commenter noted that it's been more of a mobile summer for consumers in Europe, with prices brought down by competition (see Free Mobile in France, for example) and roaming caps, to name two examples. I was referring to operators and their bottom lines.

To be sure, LTE is a good thing for both consumers and operators--it brings true broadband speeds to mobile services and provides opportunities for operators to differentiate themselves by offering shared data plans and tiered pricing and launching new promotional schemes, to name a few. After months of "will they, won't they" speculation about LTE rollouts, I for one have enjoyed seeing operators squaring up to each other over launch plans and engaging in some good old-fashioned posturing about who has the best and biggest network. It's positive stuff after some of the doom and gloom that prevailed after the launch of first-quarter results.

Somewhat mischievously, EE's director of RAN development, Mansoor Hanif said at a press conference this week that EE feels "lonely" as the only LTE operator in the UK market. EE has certainly been in chest-beating mode this week, announcing that it now has 500,000 LTE subscribers in the UK and will be launching new LTE shared data plans, which are still a rarity in Europe.

Vodafone may have gritted its teeth over the "lonely" comment, but it was quick to refute Hanif's comments that its network-sharing venture with O2 UK might not be going too well. The operator also lambasted a report on network performance in London by network monitoring firm RootMetrics, which ranked Vodafone's network in fourth place behind its three largest rivals. In fact, it's been a busy week on the PR front for Vodafone UK, which also provided details on its LTE investment plans for this year and indicated it was on course for a late summer launch, when it clearly intends to come out with all guns blazing--or at least decent LTE coverage in the UK, one would hope.

Over the Channel in France, Bouygues Telecom announced plans to launch its 1800 MHz LTE plans in October, and emphasised it will provide coverage in 100 French towns and cities right from launch. Meanwhile, Orange France and SFR are rolling out their LTE services as fast as they can.

LTE: coming to a base station near you... ?--Anne